LINKEDINCOMMENTMORE

Ludington — Some residents hid in their homes. Others called the police. The bolder ones shrieked at the intruder, or took photos and videos of her.

The object of their fear wasn’t a criminal or a wild animal.

It was a 22-year-old saleswoman.

“This has gone really crazy around here,” said resident Vanessa VerStrat.

Claire Whitcomb, aka Claire the Book Girl, is a recent college grad who went door to door this summer selling study guides in this western Michigan town.

Many residents liked the outgoing, clean-cut Whitcomb, whose Facebook page has dozens of selfies with smiling customers and their families.

But others seemed unnerved.

They didn’t like that she kept returning to their homes until they answered the door, visited as early as 8 a.m. and as late as 9 p.m., and continued to press for a sale after they said no.

“I was incredibly offended,” Kandi Nichols said when she demurred and Whitcomb told her other parents had gotten the books for their children. “I had to tell her to get off my porch and never come back.”

After receiving several complaints, the city of Ludington yanked Whitcomb’s vendor permit last month..

She moved her sales to Manistee 25 miles away but word of the controversy preceded her. She ended up going to Grand Rapids, where she finished the last two weeks of her efforts earlier this month.

Whitcomb can’t understand how the summer job went so wrong.

“They were saying I’m a terrible person,” she said, nearly shouting. “No, I’m not. I promise. If you talk to me for five minutes, you would see that.”

The Azle, Texas, native, who graduated in May from Baylor University with a entrepreneurship degree, has worked for Southwestern Advantage for three summers.

The Nashville company recruits college students to sell its reference and children’s books, and subscriptions to its educational website.

The salespeople don’t receive a salary. Their only compensation comes from commissions.

Southwestern deploys the students far from home to cut down on distractions like friends or family. The company doesn’t pay their expenses.

Whitcomb, who answers her phone “Claire the Book Girl,” excelled at Southwestern.

Of 2,000 salespeople, she ranked 16th for sales before tumbling to 30th after the controversy.

Working 80-hour weeks for three months, she talked to 3,201 families in Mason County, selling $65,000 worth of merchandise to 300 customers.

She earned $2,000 a week.

Virgie Sandford, a Southwestern district sales manager who has worked with Whitcomb for three years, described her as an indefatigable worker who sometimes tried too hard to make a sale.

“She’s an outstanding young woman,” said Sandford. “If most parents knew her, they would want their kids to hang out with her.”

Whitcomb, who sold in Walled Lake and Waterford Township last year, said some residents there grumbled about her but didn’t respond anything like western Michigan.

Southwestern salespeople in other parts of the country also have been criticized for their tenacity, according to various news reports.

A company spokesman said the salespeople are being nothing more than determined.

“With sales, the best salesperson will have a little persistence,” said the spokesman, Trey Campbell.

Besides doggedness, the sales force also is known for its attitude.

Despite grueling days filled with rejection in a strange town, salespeople are relentlessly upbeat, said customers.

That comes from their one week of training that emphasizes self-help slogans and precepts.

Salespeople said they’re taught that their biggest obstacle is self-pity, and the way to overcome it is by saying aloud a personal slogan throughout the day.

Whitcomb’s mantra: “I am a rock. I am faithful. I am loving. I am strong.”

She also kept slogans on her work notepad: “It’s worth it.” “It’s God’s divine plan.” “Work with absolute integrity.”

Long days

Working 8 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday through Saturday, Whitcomb’s goal this summer was to visit every Mason County home with children.

Beginning May 26, she drove down every street looking for children or signs of them in the yards, a bicycle, a swing set.

The first complaint popped up on her work Facebook page July 9. Others followed every three or four days. The trickle turned into a deluge by late July.

Of the 61 reviews on the page, 55 people either loved or hated her. She received 37 five-star reviews, the highest rating, and 18 one-star.

Critics said she harassed their families but photos on the Facebook page make her look like a member of other families.

The pictures show her with customers as she’s holding babies, doing headstands, or mugging for the camera with their children.

“She’s just a creative, motivated, talented, honest salesperson,” said Harold Brower, who bought two math books for his 8-year-old twins. “I just think she’s a wonderful girl.”

Complaints against Whitcomb seemed to boil down to her doggedness.

If you pretended you weren’t home, she came back, said residents. If you said you had to think about it, she came back. If you asked her to come back, she came back.

With some residents, it almost became a test of wills.

By the time some residents finally came to the door, they were livid.

Christa Soller said Whitcomb came to her home three times over several days.

The first time, her husband answered but was noncommittal. The second time, Soller refused to answer the door. The third time, Soller began shrieking at the saleswoman.

“I was so angry I flew up from my couch,” she said. “I let her know I knew who she was and she should never come back.”

Soller, 41, who has a 5-year-old son, told Whitcomb she would count to three and, if the saleswoman hadn’t left by the time she was done, she would call the police.

Whitcomb left as Soller began counting, and the homeowner videotaped her Jeep Wrangler pulling away. Soller called the police anyway, filing a complaint for the saleswoman being “very pushy.”

‘Persistent and resilient’

As unhappy residents shared stories about Whitcomb over social media, others who had no contact with her joined the discussion.

Jeremy VerStrat wrote on Facebook that Whitcomb was from Turkey. He apparently got that from her Facebook page, which said she spent a year studying abroad in Istanbul.

VerStrat, 37, was upset that Whitcomb wasn’t a local resident and had come to his home during dinnertime. He said he told her to leave the neighborhood. He took photos, which he posted on Facebook, that showed her license plate and the car inspection and college sorority stickers on her vehicle.

“Her moral character is in question,” he wrote. “She is persistent and resilient.”

As the negative comments spread, two customers asked for their money back.

The controversy reached Ludington City Hall on July 20 when police reported several complaints, including Soller’s.

City Clerk Deb Luskin contacted Sandford but, after receiving another complaint July 22, yanked Whitcomb’s sales permit that day.

Luskin explained all this in an email to the City Council whose subject heading was “Claire the Book Lady.”

“This world nowadays, you’re looking out for the safety of residents,” Luskin said this week when asked about her quick decision to revoke the permit.

Ludington issues about seven sales permits a year, said Luskin.

VerStrat, who couldn’t be reached for comment, celebrated when the permit was canceled.

“SCORE!” he wrote on Facebook.

A summer of rejection

Whitcomb’s father, Rick, joined the fray Aug. 6 by writing a letter to a local online news site.

Given how millennials are criticized by some who say they’re lazy, he said it was ironic his daughter was being castigated for just the opposite.

“It takes a special person with a special heart to devote their summers to rejection,” he wrote.

Contacted last week, he lamented the role social media plays in publicly shaming people these days.

Tom Rotta, a local blogger who looked into the controversy, said he was surprised the permit was pulled so quickly.

“I thought it was pretty much a raw deal,” he said. “I’m not a psychologist but it was kind of localized hysteria, almost a witch hunt mentality.”

As for the Book Girl, the fledgling college grad said she began the summer never feeling better about herself. Halfway through the season, though, a lot of people were telling Whitcomb how rotten she was.

The controversy eventually wore her down.

Despite her daily self-affirmations, she sometimes snapped back at the residents belittling her, she said.

Whitcomb, who’s delivering the last of the books to customers in Ludington before heading to Nicaragua for two years of missionary work, chalked up those transgressions to youth and exhaustion.

“Definitely some people caught me at a bad moment, and I probably caught them at a bad moment,” she said.

Salespeople are told during training that this may be the hardest job they ever have. And that doesn’t include people telling the world they’re a horrible person.

“I put my whole heart into it, which is hard because your heart gets crushed every now and then,” Whitcomb said. “But if I can do this, I can do anything.”

fdonnelly@detroitnews.com

313) 223-4186

Twitter: @francisXdonnell

LINKEDINCOMMENTMORE
Read or Share this story: http://detne.ws/1JnBfnO